Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

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After you ... are we right? After you finished the Royal Commission into Human Relationships, you wrote a popular version of it in book form didn't you? ... [interruption] ... And have we got the hair right and the other continuities right? ... [interruption] ...

After the Human Relationships Commission finished and the report came out, you wrote a popular version of it in book form. How did that come about and why did you do it?

I did it because ... partly out of frustration because that report was never debated in parliament. There was a lot of publicity after it came out, but it seemed to me very important to ... to get people in the wider Australian community reading their own stories — the evidence that we'd had. And to try and help it stay around for much longer than it might have done because it was literally swallowed up ... after that change of government. And so I went to a publisher and suggested doing a version of the report that made it accessible to the general public ... and actually got a publisher who said, ‘That's alright. I've never known a journalist ever finish a book’, which is a ridiculous thing to say ... ‘and you'll never get it done’, which probably spurred me on as well. So I spent about six months or more writing that book, going through the evidence, and it actually was a very good idea because it became a university textbook. It was used in the tertiary education system, and it was used in schools a lot, in Years 11 and 12. And it's still ... I ... I still get ... copyright stuff, you know, copying stuff from it. It's still around. It's still being used, now in a historic sense obviously. But that was my first book.

You called it Australians at Risk — what were they at risk of?

Well, I think what was at risk was the fact that people were coping with momentous changes that had happened in society, and that it was very important that those changes were mirrored in the kind of support systems, the laws and the programs that were available for people. So there was that risk that somehow we would not catch up. We'd be like the Dodo ... and it ... so that's why I wrote that. There was the risk that people who were talking openly about what it was like to be pilloried because of their gender preferences, or what it was like ... what happened to women in rape cases or other cases of sexual assault, what happened to children who were abused because there weren't the kinds of supports for ... for parents. There weren't the programs to mother the mother. Um ... these ... this was why they were at risk. And that's why I used that title.

And what was the next book you wrote after you did that one?

I think the next book was probably Tell Me I'm Here. That was a torrid book to write because it was much more painful than I imagined. I don't know why I was naïve enough to think that it wouldn't be painful. Although I set out to write a book about schizophrenia ... because that was my original commission from Penguin was to write a kind of lay-person's guide to schizophrenia. And I knew I couldn't do that when Jonathan was still alive, and I was just too ... my life was too busy. And after he died and after I left the film school, I sat down to write that book. But after about two days, sitting at my desk, I remember thinking this is not the book to write. The book that I need to write is the book about what happened to us because I was aware that it was happening to so many thousands of other people, and their stories were simply not being listened to and not being heard. So that's why it became a torrid experience.

But it also set a sort of pattern for future books, in that you did this mixture of research into a subject that affected a lot of people, and your own personal account of your own experience of it. And I think the next book you did was Coming of Age ...

I didn't put myself in that ... [laughs] ...

... which was a book about aging. But that happened at a stage when you started being ... feeling that you were getting older. Can you tell us about that? About how you came to think you would do that book about aging?

I think I was asked to do that book. Um ... and ... I actually initially didn't think that I particularly wanted it, not because it was about aging, but I didn't want to do an interview book ... however Henry Rosenbloom, who's the publisher of Scribe, he's such a wonderful person to work with that I thought, well I'll do this. I'll do it quickly, as you always do think, and of course you never do anything that's of any value really quickly. And ... as I started to interview people who were at that stage, now, were older than I was ... people who were in their 70s and 80s, it became very interesting, because they were people from a whole range of ... of different backgrounds who were able to talk very eloquently about getting older.

At the same time ... when I began the book, I kind of detached myself very neatly from age because I was writing about these people who were old or getting old ... I was also quite impatient about all the euphemisms attached to age. About talking about the 'golden oldies' and, you know, you weren't old you were aging, or you were reaching your senior years. All this sort of stuff irritated me ... then I took all these interviews and I went to Italy where my younger brother was living in the country, up in the north of Italy, and I went there to write the book, to edit the transcriptions of the interviews and so on and so on. As I was reading about the biological process of aging while I was there, the rain was pouring down because it was autumn. The leaves were in sodden heaps as you went outside the front door, and I was beginning to ache because there was a mist coming up over the hills. And I began to think, ‘God, my sinews are stiffening and my muscles are shrinking.’ And I became much more conscious biologically of aging, and I began to be quite depressed.

I was living in a strange house that was full of religious symbols. There were Madonnas that glowed in the dark and there was a Jesus Christ cuckoo clock and all sorts of things like that ... that ... it was a very Italian house that was full of iconic ... symbols of ... well of death, I suppose, a lot of them were ... and I went out for a walk on my brother's farm ... during this period of feeling that I was actually quite old myself, and I was beginning to walk very carefully in case I fell, because I had been transcribing interviews of people falling. And we went for a walk up a hill, pouring rain, slippery, and I was very careful climbing up the hill and I was grabbing on to tree branches until I got to the very top. And my brother said, ‘Why on earth are you behaving like that?’ And I said, ‘I think I'm frightened of falling’ in a tremulous, pathetic voice. At which point he pushed me and I rolled down the hill. Thank God he doesn't do anything like that now. Anyhow, I rolled down the hill, and it was interesting. I was very old at the top of the hill but by the time I reached the bottom of the hill and I got up, I was laughing and I was very young.

So ... [laughs] ... it was a kind of an interesting learning experience about how important how you feel about yourself is. So if you feel old you're going to walk old and talk old and think old. If you ... if your mind's alert and you ... and you embrace life, and you have fun out of life ... which can be hard if you're old and in great pain, I'm sure. But at that stage it really shifted my whole perspective.

How old were you at the time?

I don't remember ... [laughs] ... That sounds bad doesn't it.

Sounds important.

I think I was in my early 60s or something like that.

And what did you learn yourself from writing the book and meeting all these people that you had to interview? What did ... you obviously had a very strong lesson from your brother. But did you learn anything else from the process of interviewing older people?

Well, I think I learnt that clearly the ... the physical deterioration that inevitably comes about with age is .. you know, can slow you down. Can be painful. But I learnt that ... to respect that. ... but it was also quite clear with all these people that I met and talked with and spent time with, was that their ... they still had a huge zest for life. They still found joy in life. They were engaged with life. And it seemed to me that that was very important. Even some people who were very old, were in their 90s and were really very frail, were still right there with life. There's a wonderful passage in a Colette book called The Blue Lantern where she is crippled with arthritis. She's bedridden for nearly all the time, until ... unless her lover comes about every two or three months, and takes her for a ride in the country. And that's the only time she goes out. And so her life is contained inside this room. And she can hear the noise of the children playing outside and ... and see the branches tapping on the windowpane, and watch them change through the season. Watch the leaves come. And she writes this exquisite book about the ... the beauty that surrounds her. How she finds joy in looking at a follicle or a petal of a flower. Now whether that was actually the reality. She might have been, you know, quite an angry old woman, I don't know. But it certainly ... it was a reminder that even when you are very ill, you can still find beauty around you. And I think that's an important message.

That's why when people say to me, 'when are you going to retire?' ... it seems to me such an extraordinary word. I know it's more applicable if you're in a job where you work for an organisation ... but it's still, people can still sometimes get cross with me and say, ‘Isn't it time you slowed down?’ ... which may very well be true. Or isn't it time you know that you changed and gave up your work, or moved somewhere different or so on. But that's not me. It's not, my joy in life is engaging with life and I intend to go on with that as long as I possibly can. Hopefully until my last breath.

Well, writing is one occupation where you're allowed to do that. And what was your next book after Coming of Age?

My next book was a novel. And I think I had decided I would like to tackle a novel. I would like to explore a different kind of writing. I was very interested by then in the whole craft of writing. I was realising how much I was learning with each book, and I remember I had always been a member of the Australian Society of Authors, but I actually became involved ... in the committee and I went on to Chair the ASA. And it ... it wasn't so that I could be a writer ... I remember Georgia my daughter saying to me, because there was an awful lot of work at one stage there, and she said, ‘You don't have to join the ASA in order to write a book.’ And she was quite right, of course, but what it did for me was give me a peer group. It was to give me friends who were ... who were writers engaged in writing full-time and that made a huge difference to the way I kind of felt about my life and what I was doing. It was very important, that.

Why do you think it was important to you?

Because I think I felt I would never be a proper writer. It was somehow ... it was this sort of crossover. It was a stupid conceit in a way. Not a conceit, but it was a sense of ... I saw myself as a journalist and a broadcaster and a filmmaker. I didn't see myself as a full-time writer. I didn't feel like one. ... and so I would always be hopping off to do other things, and interfering with writing. And I needed to have other people around me, friends around me, who were also writing. Who were engaged in what can be a very lonely process. You know, you're not outside there in the world a lot of the time. And I needed somebody to say, you know, to ring up and say, ‘Oh I've spent all week and I've only written three words’ or whatever it is. Or the joy of actually talking about something that's working well. And I did get a lot of help from ... from those friendships. For example I remember Rosie Scott ... who's a close friend and a very good novelist, read the first draft of that first novel ... the only novel so far, Lines in the Sand, and was just enormously helpful in the kind of technique of novel writing. It was stuff that I had never actually learnt ... and I don't mean that you can learn to be a writer necessarily. But there were whole areas where she'd say ... Rosie talks about hot spots. And she'd say, ‘You know, clearly this is a very dramatic moment here and you haven't yet, you haven't developed it properly.’ And there were a whole number of ways in which just spending a couple of hours going through that draft helped me enormously. So it was important.

Journalists often find the crossover from non-fiction to fiction incredibly difficult because they're used to exposition. How did you handle that?

I found it incredibly difficult ... in the beginning I could finish the novel in about six pages. You know, I wrote very brief terse kind of stuff. And ... and also I kept writing non-fiction. I kept writing about the facts and it obviously [meant] that I really wasn't then thinking as a novelist. So I wouldn't say ... I would say ... people would say, ‘What's this book about?’ and I would say, ‘Well it's about famine in Africa and it's about the relationship between the media and the aid organisations and the governments of the country.’ Whereas I knew very well that my friends who were novelists would say, ‘Well, it's about this young woman Hannah who has an affair with a young African rebel leader’ ... and they talk about people, whereas I'd be talking about issues. And while I was writing the book some very strange things happened, because I remember having the young woman Hannah, who'd followed the young European Rwandan exile who was a young political science student ... she'd followed him to Europe, and they had climbed the stairs to his room. She was in love with him and ... and they ... they kind of circled around whether they'd go to bed together. She's turned up unexpectedly. And finally they do that night, but just as she is ... standing opposite him and they've just begun to embrace, and she strokes his nose and he's a Tutsi, so he has a very long straight nose ... and I found myself embarking on a 14-page dissertation about the nature of the genocide in Rwanda and how the Hutus were very jealous of the Tutsis who had been favoured by the Belgium colonists because they looked European. So I left them dangling there. Never mind the bed. I talked about the politics of genocide.

Why did you call it Lines in the Sand?

Because it seemed to me that people were always making promises, which were then blown over. That it was very hard to remain true to your ethical principles ... that there were few absolutes and I was trying to ... to kind of look at that. The fact that you were in the media ... even though you might be deeply concerned with what was happening in that country, you could only show a very superficial part of it, and in showing it you might ... you might help the cause of raising funds, but you might blinker people's eyes to what was actually happening in the country in terms of the economics of the country and the economic exploitation of the country, so you draw a line in the sand, and then it would be blown over.

And my two characters were in the end dealing with ... the young Rwandan man was dealing with ... he had grown up and he'd become the leader of the country ... it was all a bit Hollywoody but never mind. He was dealing with should he rescue his daughter that he never knew he had, who'd been captured, should he ransom her for ... for the leaders ... the Hutu leaders that he was holding. Or should he let her die because it was important not to ... not to let the leaders go back again. It was one of these no-win situations. In the end I rescued her.

In deciding to write your first novel about a situation that you had reported on as a journalist, were you choosing that to make life more difficult for yourself in making the transition to fiction? Because the fact that you had reported on it, did that influence the way that you worked?

I think it did. I think it probably grounded me much more in journalism, in the non-fiction side of events. In hindsight, I think it made it more difficult. It would have been easier had I gone off on a ... on a totally different imaginary tactic. As I did when I was a child. I mean, my stories were always very imaginative. But at the time I did it because I was interested in those issues.

You said that it was quite Hollywood. Did you ... I mean, in being a filmmaker, did you ever think that it might turn into a fiction film?

Yeah, I didn't write it ... thinking that it was going to be a fiction film. I mean, I didn't write it wanting it to be a fiction film, so I wasn't writing it like a film script. But I, obviously as I wrote it, it became obvious that I ... I write in quite a visual way, ... that it did ... it did read a bit as if it was getting ready for a film script. And indeed the option, which doesn't mean all that much because people can take up an option and then it can fizzle out. And I had a great option on Lines in the Sand with the people who made Shadowlands. And ... and then one of the producers' brother, who had schizophrenia, died in a train accident. Put his ... killed himself, and she didn't want to go on with the film. So that fizzled. And in this case, the contract for the option was ready to be signed and ... the person who was going to sign it moved to another job and that fizzled ... so that was sort of disappointing, but that was par for the course because I knew that happened in filmmaking ... I think ... I've forgotten where I was at.

When you decided that you wanted to move into a more fictional style of expression, you chose to do it as a novel and not as a screenplay. Why was that?

Well, I think because I wanted to learn the craft of novel writing ...

Why?

Because I hadn't done it before, I suppose. Because I read a lot and because I was engaged in that whole fascinating pursuit of words and how you make stories come alive. How you make ... how you help make people think of the nuances of life. And it seemed to me that I could get those across much better in a novel. It was just like an adventure I wanted to explore. Again, that was much harder than I thought. I did an enormous number of drafts on that and ... and it's interesting reading those drafts. When I flipped through them afterwards you could see how they improved. So in the beginning they were like a film script ... and that, in a film, a lot of the nuances and the emotions come out in the acting. The language might trigger something, and so that my ... my book in the beginning, my drafts in the beginning, really lacked very much depth. I said it was Hollywoody and I think that's because at the end of it, by the time I got to the end, I didn't know how to, what do to with this blooming young woman who'd been captured. And I wanted to rescue her and I was truly exhausted at that stage with this book, and I engineered a really rather Hollywoody ending with helicopters flying overhead just to bring it to a close. And yet at the time I kind of knew it was not quite right.

How was it received?

Well interestingly ... first of all there was a thundering silence, and this is the awful thing when you write a book, is that there are not ... the ... the review pages are pretty slight now, and if you take away the books ... the overseas books that are reviewed and written about, often at very great length ... then if you're an Australian writer, unless you are very well-known, or it's a sensational kind of book, or it's maybe an absolutely brilliant book, which I hoped this would be, but I knew by then it wasn't — I mean, it was a good book but it wasn't a brilliant book — you might end up getting no reviews at all. And in the beginning there was a kind of thundering silence except the suburban papers which I think covered it. And then I did start getting reviews and some of them were very good. Some of them took up the whole political thrust of the book and ... and reviewed it seriously. One or two were absolutely excoriating and they said that ‘Anne Deveson must learn that writing a romantic travelogue does not make a novel’ or ‘what a pity she didn't stick to broadcasting’ and this sort of thing. And you look at those and you got pssst. And then you realise you have to let them go.

Except they're the ones you remember.

Those I remember word for word. Yes.

What was your next book?

My next book was ... I did some anthologies. I did some chapters in various anthologies in between. And then I had been asked to write a book about resilience ... and I had ... I hadn't done that for quite a while. I had ... I didn't start that for quite a while. I can't remember what I was doing in the middle.

When you say you were asked to write a book about resilience, I mean, did that just come out of the blue, or had you been speaking publicly about these things or writing about resilience before?

No it happened ... quite naturally out of a friendship I have with Jackie Yowell, who published Tell Me I'm Here when she was with Penguin, and I was with Jackie and Jan Carter who's a sociologist and ... has a very good mind, and we were in ... I was in Melbourne and we were walking along the banks of the Yarra one Sunday afternoon, and we were just talking about issues in life, and out of that came a very lively discussion about how in society we tend always to focus on pathologies of people's lives or pathologies of society. And we spend far little ... less time looking at how people manage to succeed. How do people get better? How do ... societies or communities that have been totally devastated ... what helps them spring back again? And from that Jackie asked if I would write this book. In this case it was for Allan & Unwin. When would I write this book on resilience? And I said, yes, but I can't do it yet.

And then she got some research money for me and came the time I clearly needed to write it, I'd done some research, but in the meantime something else had happened that had taken my life off on a different course. And so when I came to write it, I actually didn't want just to write a book about resilience, and I ended up really doing very much as I'd done with Tell Me I'm Here, which was a book which incorporated my own life and my own experiences, with a lot of the research and theory about resilience, and some of the stories about other people's lives.

And what was the event that took you off on a different course?

I fell in love ... it was an extraordinary thing that happened and I wasn't looking for it, or expecting it ... the very first person that I interviewed for Resilience at the beginning of 1999 was a man called Robert Theobald who was an Englishman who lived in the United States, and he was a kind of maverick economist ... a socio-economist who'd been educated in Cambridge and Harvard. He'd worked in Paris, and he ... had then written a lot of very controversial books in America which had hit the front pages of the New York Times and so on. And he was ... he was a person who always said that ... that the economy should be serving people and not the other way around. So it was that kind of argument. And he went on to be a very successful lecturer. Ah ... so he lectured around the world and he had come to Australia and he was very concerned with fostering resilience in communities, because I think he felt quite pessimistic about the drift the world was taking, and he felt that resilient communities were ... were one way of shoring up people's strength so that if there were increasing disasters in the world, because of climate change or because of the wars that were ravaging the countrysides around the world, that having resilient communities would be a good way of withstanding that ... [interruption] ... I didn't want to interview him particularly because I wasn't ready to interview anyone. I was still reading a lot ... [interruption] ... Sorry I'm going to start again.

I didn't want to interview him particularly because it was January, it was very hot. I wasn't ready to interview anyone. I was still reading and when a friend suggested it, I said, ‘No I don't think so.’ And she said, ‘Look, I think it's very important you do go. I just think you'd get on well. I think you'd find him very interesting.’ She had rang him and he was going back to America the following day, and she said he must fit in this woman and see her, ‘Anne. She's a very dear friend of mine and I think you'd enjoy meeting her.’ And ... and so I did go in, grudgingly actually. And I met Robert and I listened to his lecture and then I went and talked to him afterwards, and it was supposed to be for 20 minutes because he had so much to do. And it ended up being about two hours. And it was one of those meetings with someone where you simply dance off each other. Where you engage with ideas and ... and you become quite heady as a result of that. And I remember thinking ... and I find it almost difficult saying this, because it sounds like a, you know, a woman's magazine, sort of pulp fiction sort of story. Ah ... I thought, this is the man I'm going to spend the rest of my life with, which didn't exactly happen, but almost did.

You must have met and continued to meet a lot of people where you have a terrific exchange of ideas. What was different about Robert?

I think ... I think he was the kind of person who had enormous enthusiasm and a zest for life. He had a great sense of humour. And he really engaged in a way that ... is quite rare. So he would listen and ask questions as well as hold forth. And powerful men don't often do that. ... and this was somebody who was actually quite persuasive and this was very infectious but it also slightly alarmed me. And it's interesting going back to my first meeting with Ellis. It was a different kind of alarm, and there were some similarities between the two men. They were both big men, big good looking men with a lot of energy, that I remember thinking I don't want to be drawn into his work. It is ... it allies itself with my work and what I'm thinking, but I don't want to be kind of just consumed in Robert's life and Robert's work ... and then knowing ... not even feeling but feeling and knowing that what I had by now, the awareness and the wisdom and skills, really ... not to let that happen. And that also he was by then the kind of person, and I think he'd matured a lot in his life with various things that had happened to him, that I could ... we could actually discuss this. So whatever problems arose or issues that do arise in relationships, we could talk it through. I'm jumping a bit. But it was just sort of awareness, even after that first meeting, that this was going to be something really that was very good. And that I should go with it, and not start analysing it or making lists about what may or may not happen. So I really did, for that whole year that we were together, simply allow that relationship to take its course.

And what was that course?

Well, we emailed a lot. Ah ... he came back about two or three months later ... later in May. We had about three days together. He was working in those three days, and then I was simply spending time with him. There were other people around. But we were still talking about ideas and he was coming back to have a big seminar in Canberra and he asked if I'd join him and help him with it — which is where I had another of those ah ... ah ... but I thought, well yes, I will because I'll go with that and I don't have to let it consume me ... and then after that, the email correspondence began to be more personal and we made a decision to ... when he came back, to go away and spend some time together, to really get to know each other because it was impossible while he was on the road. He came back in September, came and stayed with me a couple of days, a couple of nights here. And then went to Canberra, worked ... he worked. He went off working for another two weeks. We had ... we went off to spend these 10 days together. And we ... we kind of ... we knew we were ... he was already talking ... we were already talking about living together. And we'd made that decision, we would live together.

And about five days into being away he suddenly became gravely ill. It was quite obvious. If I look back, he was already ill. He'd had oesophageal cancer about two years earlier. Being Robert, he thought he was in remission. He sort of put it on one side. He talked about it. Ah ... and I think he held it very valiantly at bay, and he could do so no longer. And he cancelled his engagements, flew back to the United States, was told then that he had about six months to live, and each day he would ring in with a different report. On about the third or fourth day he was told that maybe he had a few weeks to live. I flew over to join him, and he died about 10 days later ... he died with his friends. He had a group of friends who'd helped him when he'd been very ill two years earlier, and they opened their arms to me, and I became a part of that circle of people who were with him when he died. So it was a year, really, of kind of time out and huge ... huge, really quite cataclysmic.

Had you been expecting at this stage of your life ... you were, what, 69 ...

Mmm.

... that something like that would come into your life?

Absolutely not. I mean, it wasn't something I gave much thought to. You know, I might have done earlier, when I would think it would be good to have another relationship. And then life became very full and ... I had ... I have very good friends, and I have grandchildren now. And I wasn't going around looking for a man or another relationship. And that's why it was extraordinary because it ... it was just so sudden and very strong — for both of us. It was kind of at the end of that first meeting, I remember, when we were talking talking talking, and there were a lot of similarities in our lives because he'd been ... he was the son of a colonial family. His ... his life was spent in England. He went back to England. His father sent for the family when they were living in England when the war happened, at about the same time, same month, same year, that we went to England. He went back to England. He spent his war years in England. They were repatriated to England. He finished his schooling in England at the same time I finished my schooling in England. He was working for the OECD in [Paris] at the same time that I was working for an Hungarian economist in [Paris]. And, I'm not saying that this is the sort of ... coincidences that mean something, but it meant that we had a very similar background. Ah ... we'd lived a long time away from England so we were a strange kind of hybrid. We discovered a lot of similarities in our childhoods. And we ... and we certainly had the same quite strong passionate beliefs in various ... in our work and the things that concerned us.

Before he became very ill, you had only really a few days alone together. What were those days really about?

They were about getting to fill in the gaps. I mean, we'd taken a huge leap from very brief encounters, never on our own, to this strong awareness that we wanted to spend the rest of our time together. So they were really about ... catching up. About talking about our childhoods. They were about ... our lives and what had happened to us. They were very brief. And so ... sort of shorthand explanations of what had happened to us. We had a lot of ... a lot of laughter. There was a lot of playing as you do I think at the beginning of a relationship. ... we discovered we knew the same nursery rhymes and the same poetry that we'd learnt at school, and so we spent a lot of time reciting these to each other. We went for walks. We spent quite a lot of time being quite still. So there were ... it was like two lifetimes in four days.

Where were you?

We were ... in a place called Long Island ... off Hamilton Island. And it was ... there's a kind of tourist resort one side of the island ...

[end of tape]

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